How To Prototype Railroads You can’t pull passenger trains with freight locomotives

You can’t pull passenger trains with freight locomotives

By Drayton Blackgrove | April 20, 2023

Can any locomotive be used to run a modern passenger train in the United States, and if not, why?

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Black locomotive with blue and white stripes leads passenger train
Siemens ALC42 No. 301, in the “Day One” heritage paint scheme, leads the eastbound Empire Builder through Elm Grove, Wis., on March 24, 2022. Its modern design showcases why you can’t pull passenger trains with freight locomotives. Trains: David Lassen

If you’re new to the hobby, you might be wondering if you can operate any locomotive on a modern passenger train. If you’re looking to be prototypical, the short answer is no. Many factors go into this simple answer, so let’s explore why you can’t pull passenger trains with freight locomotives and what limits any locomotive in general from being passenger motive power.

First off, passenger trains require certain specifications in terms of speed, power, and capacity. They typically run at higher speeds than freight trains and therefore require locomotives that are designed for the demands needed. These locomotives have different gear ratios, brake systems, and other components that are optimized for passenger service.

Secondly, passenger trains must comply with certain safety regulations that do not apply to freight. For example, passenger trains must have emergency brakes that can be applied from any car and meet crashworthiness standards to protect passengers in an accident. These safety features are not required for freight trains.

Thirdly, passenger trains require certain amenities for the comfort onboard, such as air conditioning, heating, and seating. These amenities require special HEP (Head End Power) which is typically not present on freight locomotives primarily used for hauling goods and materials. HEP units are normally installed inside the carbody of a passenger locomotive, from Amtrak’s classic F40PH to their modern P42.

In the 1950s, diesel locomotives were initially fitted with generators providing steam heat for the passenger cars, a technique previously performed by steam locomotives. As railroads transitioned from steam to diesel power, the generators became a cost-effective way to heat older passenger cars without having to completely rebuild them.

The Chicago & North Western Railroad took a significant step in the late 1950s by replacing steam generators on their EMD F7 and E8 locomotives in their Peninsula 400 commuter service with diesel-powered generator sets. It became a natural evolution since the locomotives were already supplying low-voltage, low-current power to assist the axle generators in maintaining a battery charge. Although many commuter systems quickly converted to HEP, long-distance trains still relied on steam heat and battery-powered electrical systems. This gradually changed when intercity passenger service was transferred to Amtrak, leading to the full adoption of HEP in the United States.

The use of HEP provides several advantages for passenger trains such as more efficient use of power generated from the locomotive than using multiple individual generators on each car. It also allows for a quieter and more comfortable ride for passengers as the noise and vibration from the individual generators are eliminated. Lastly, it allows for a more flexible configuration of passenger cars as they can be added or removed without the need to modify or add additional electrical systems.

HEP is commonly used on modern passenger trains, including commuter, intercity, and high-speed services. The power needed is typically supplied through a set of electrical connections known as a “head end” or “hotel” connection between each car. This connection allows the locomotive to supply electrical power to the entire train. The power itself can vary depending on the train and its configuration, but typically ranges from 480 volts to 600 volts AC at a frequency of 60 Hz.

Another reason that not just any locomotive can be used on passenger trains is that there are legal and regulatory requirements that must be met before anyone can be used in passenger service. All locomotives must be certified by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which sets safety standards for passenger rail service.

The use of proper-working ditch lights is one of the major requirements by the FRA, specifically under Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 229.125. They must be visible from a distance of at least 1,500 feet in daylight conditions, and at least 5,000 feet at night. Ditch lights must also be aimed in such a way to illuminate the tracks and any obstructions either on or near them.

The use of ditch lights has shown to be an effective means of reducing accidents at grade crossings and other areas where the tracks cross roads or any other pathways. As a result, they are an essential safety feature on passenger trains in the United States and are now required by law.

In conclusion, specific locomotives must be used to run passenger trains in America, whether modern or otherwise. They’re required to be specifically designed and equipped for the purpose of carrying people, and must meet specific safety, comfort, and regulatory standards of the modern age. While freight locomotives may be used for certain types of passenger service, such as on commuter and tourist trains, they cannot be used for high-speed intercity service or other forms of passenger rail service that require specialized equipment and systems.

A black model diesel locomotive pulls a modern passenger train down a grade
Led by its Siemens ALC-42 diesel locomotive in the commemorative Day 1 paint scheme, Amtrak’s Empire Builder approaches Williams Bay on the HO scale Milwaukee, Racine & Troy staff layout. Bryson Sleppy photo

7 thoughts on “You can’t pull passenger trains with freight locomotives

  1. Actually you can pull commuter trains and passenger trains with a freight locomotive.

    On the picture of the commuter locomotive right next to the front hitch, you can see an MU or Mutiple Unit cable connector plug.

    This is used for both freight cars and passenger cars and ALL BNSF locomotives have WABTEC computers for just that purpose.

    I was an electrician for BNSF and put in ALL of the on board computers, cameras and related software.

    So essentially my knowledge of this and the previous comment from Jeremy render your entire article moot, meaning not accurate. JD

  2. It amazes me that people can write something so confidently while being so incorrect at the same time. If your going to write something as if it’s a fact, maybe you should make sure that it is a fact first….
    Many people are bringing up the empire builder…. I’ll make it even clearer and easier for you…. The rocky mountaineer Rocky’s to red rocks. Since they started in the us all of their trains have been pulled by bnsf engines.
    I simply can’t understand why someone who’s so into trains that they write for a train website, could be so incorrect and everyone who approved it as well just let it go.

    False information from false confident people like this, is why it’s so hard to know what’s truth and what’s bs these days

  3. I was a conductor on the Empire Builder and there were many times a freight locomotive pulled the train. If we had cold weather restrictions and only two Amtrak locomotives, we would add a BNSF unit. If we had a grade crossing accident and lost the lead locomotive we would add a freight unit. When we added a freight unit, our top speed corresponded to the freight unit so it was slower and it took a little longer to pick up speed. We always had to have one Amtrak engine so we could provide head end power for the train but that didn’t mean a freight unit couldn’t pull the train.

  4. Alaska Railroad’s SD70MAC’s are dual purpose. Freight and passenger. The last order (4300 series) was configured where one inverter can provide HEP ability. Granted at the cost of reactive effort.

    Curt Fortenberry

  5. The freight locomotives have the setup in cab to pull passenger trains.
    In fact… I have done it as an engineer. Although not normally done, they can do it!

  6. Not long ago I saw the Empire Builder Amtrak stopped in the middle of nowhere with a bus on the side of the road, and a BNSF locomotive with 3 Amtrak locomotives behind it.
    Are freight living allowed to help out and pull an Amtrak in these situations?

    1. As a BNSF employee I can assure you were do need to pull Amtrak every now and then. Track speed should below our freight engine’s top speed out in the prairie. But we can’t supply power to the cars, so we need at least 1 amtrak engine behind us. Amtrak is time based. If needs be, we will get them where they need to be.

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